Written by Michael Robson
Confidence, that universal intangible that most of us admire so much in others and often crave ourselves. When challenged with even the more mundane scenarios like speaking in public or attending a job interview we all look for confidence.
In sport, in general, and football in particular, some observers might mistake confidence for arrogance, think Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane, Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Robbie Fowler. Is it arrogance or a supreme confidence that allows such elite strikers to consistently operate “in the zone”, to do the job they are so handsomely paid for? Of course, we take it more personally and are more inclined to see arrogance when it is our favourite team that Ronaldo scores another impossible goal against, again humbling our well-paid defenders and tearing his shirt off as he runs half the pitch in celebration. Or is it just confidence?
The dictionary will tell us that confidence is the feeling or demonstration of certainty and yet experience tells us all that confidence, the key psychological factor in determining success or failure in sporting performance, is far from certain. It can indeed be transient, unpredictable, fickle even. Think Greg Norman at the 1996 US Golf Masters or Jana Novotna in the 1993 Wimbledon Final. In his recent book “Bounce” British author Matthew Syed gives us an insight as he relates his own experience at the Sydney Olympics when, as Britains’ number one rated table tennis player, he realised that “from the very first shot I played, I knew there was a psychological catastrophe unfolding at the worst possible moment!”
So, as students of “the beautiful game” how can we combat the fickle nature of confidence and in turn improve the confidence, the certainty of our young players, our young strikers.
Many years of working in the development of young players and studying sports psychology impresses on us that a vicious cycle exists involving confidence and experience. Poor previous experience can lead to negative self-belief and negative self-statements which in turn leads to poor performance. And when are these negatives most prominent? Usually in pressure situations, like trying to execute that soccer skill, making that final decision/touch when shooting at goal.
The converse also holds true. Positive previous experience is known to promote positive self-belief, positive self-statements and subsequent improved performance. Indeed the old adage “practise makes perfect” might apply, but only superficially. Practice makes permanent, it is quality practice that makes perfect!
The work of sports psychologists supports such a thesis. The excellent work of Dr Kate Hayes http://theperformingedge.com/ at the University of Cardiff tells us that confident sport performance includes;
- a clear understanding of the technique required for particular situations,
- positive self-statements
- successful training experiences
- positive coach feedback
- positive mental imagery.
This is further clarified by Dr Colleen Hacker and her approach to parking mistakes.
And the Positive Coaching Alliance.
So how do these research findings relate to the everyday practical development of young strikers? Their “quality” practical, everyday application may, in itself, be the answer. How do we develop good technical understanding? How do we engender positive self-statements and mental imagery? There can only be one answer to all of these questions, through regular practice in quality environments!
The levels of confidence built on the training pitch can be immeasurable, and, with the “vicious cycle” in mind, the reverse is also possible. Using tried and true coaching principles including repetition, positive feedback, graduated pressure and variety, good soccer coaches are able to develop confidence and prepare their charges for peak athletic performance.
Good coaches are able to maximise the confidence of their players through the adept establishment of a “culture” that supplies and supports positivity in self-belief, coach feedback and mental imagery. Within such a culture all players are able to access successful training experiences at their own level of development. High expectations within an environment that is both challenging and supportive are essential!
But the everyday observer might miss such. What questions might the uninitiated ask when choosing a training environment suitable for our young talent? When you find a coach or program how do you know that they may be able to develop your young charge as both a technician and a “confident” player? Again, it comes down to the questions you might ask, both of yourself and the program you are evaluating.
Is the soccer coach you are considering qualified? At what level and with who?
Does the program have a stated coaching philosophy? Does this statement match with what is observed on the park?
Watch a session. When you arrive does the coach look organised? Is there enough gear evident? Cones, bibs, balls, striking nets….? (Not boxing gloves, hurdles ….etc. this is football!!) There should be at least one football for every player.
- As the players arrive how are they welcomed? Does the coach make a point of welcoming each player individually, interacting positively right from the outset? Do the players welcome each other?
- Is a culture of teamwork and independence apparent? Do the players know the routine, join in to make the session work and support each other? Can they get on with their own warmup?
- What is the balance between coach and player involvement? If the coach gets more touches of the ball than the players there is a real concern.
- Does the coach talk too much? Good coaches get into a soccer drill quickly, correct, demonstrate and get out quickly.
- Does the coach “shout” more than "instruct"? Shouting certainly does not promote confidence. While research suggests that learning happens in that zone between what we know and what we don’t, and players sometimes need to be placed in this zone, there is also research that suggests that a culture of fear as promoted by shouting is actually counterproductive.
- Is there a balance between football drills and play? Why do young players love the game? They love to play! Player confidence can be developed through the opportunity to just play, to put what has been drilled into what looks like real football. If it doesn’t look like football then why do it?
- How does the session finish? Is there something of a “celebration”, however small, of each players success? Positive feedback, particularly that focusing on effort rather than results, sustains future effort and confidence.
- As the session finishes are there an apparent culture of teamwork and independence? Do the players assist with the pack up? Do they work together? Do they seem happy with their efforts?
All the best in your search for the essential, fickle confidence. Hopefully, the questions suggested will assist your efforts.